By Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal
The increasing anarchy within Afghanistan is alarming for all its neighbours and immensely intimidating for Pakistan. Therefore, Islamabad’s earnest desire is to restore peace and stability in the country.
However, its sincere efforts to improve its neighbor’s political and security situation seem unappealing both to Kabul and Washington. Despite “unsubstantiated” criticism from the Afghan national unity government and allegations by the Trump Administration, the government of Pakistan is endeavoring to engage constructively with both in an attempt to restore peace in Afghanistan. Recent developments do offer some optimism about the tangled relationship between the two countries.
Since its formation in 2014 the national unity government, led by president Ashraf Ghani, has struggled to establish its authority in Afghanistan. In reality, Afghan law-enforcement agencies, especially the army, are dysfunctional. Many provinces, especially eastern and southern, remain under the control of insurgents or warlords.
On February 13, 2018, Daniel R Coats, the US Director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that analysts expect the overall situation in Afghanistan to “deteriorate modestly” in 2018 due to endless “political instability, sustained attacks by the Taliban-led insurgency, unsteady Afghan National Security Forces performance, and chronic financial shortfalls”. As a result, restoring peace and stability in the country, and organizing impartial parliamentary elections in July 2018 and a presidential election in 2019, will be herculean tasks for Ghani.
Meanwhile, the Afghan government and the Trump administration accuse Pakistan of providing safe haven to members of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network, from where they can plan and execute attacks inside Afghanistan. Pakistani officials say they are doing their best to assure the Afghan government about their sincerity in curbing cross-border militancy.
The recent visit to Kabul by Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, offered some hope for the thawing of relations between the countries. He reiterated that the path to regional peace and stability passes through Afghanistan. Speaking at the Chiefs of Defense Conference on February 13, he tried to convince Afghan and American participants that Pakistan is not supporting militant groups. He said Pakistani armed forces had successfully conducted military operations and eliminated all terrorist sanctuaries from its soil. “However, residual signatures of terrorists who take advantage of the presence of 2.7million Afghan refugees and the absence of effective border security coordination, are also being traced and targeted through ongoing operation Radd ul Fasaad,” he added.
Bajwa called on the Afghan government to reciprocate by eliminating anti-Pakistan militant sanctuaries in Afghanistan for the sake of peace and stability in the region.
His frank and honest appeal to Kabul is a step in the right direction. Without such reciprocity and the elimination of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan sanctuaries in Afghanistan, improving the tangled relationship between Islamabad and Kabul will be impossible.
Importantly, the sharp downturn in relations between Pakistan and the United States negatively influences the affairs of Kabul and Islamabad. It creates more space for India to play a bigger role in Afghanistan, which Pakistan considers detrimental to its national security. To balance this Indian and American influence in its neighborhood, Islamabad has been working to improve its relations with the Russians and Chinese. This has annoyed Washington and also undermines its positive role in Pakistani affairs.
The United States is not prepared to compromise on its control in Afghanistan and so is apprehensive about the Russians and Chinese having a growing role in the country. Moreover, Washington is reluctant to engage the Afghan Taliban, given that a condition of such dialogue would be the complete withdrawal of foreign troops.
Hence, the possibility of any meaningful dialogue to secure enduring peace and stability in Afghanistan seems slim, and maybe impossible until NATO and US troops leave Afghanistan. The reluctance of the Afghan Taliban to participate unconditionally in talks with the unity government also fuels the mistrust of Pakistan in Kabul and Washington.
To conclude, the continuing failure of Pakistan to improve its troubled relationship with Afghanistan is perilous for its security, and a destructive obstacle to its economic prosperity. Admittedly, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project is progressing despite the turmoil in the region. Perhaps it will receive a boost if the Pakistan-Afghanistan relationships ever settles down.
(The author Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is an Islamabad-based analyst and professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University.